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Gun Control Advocates Hope To Move Past Weaker NRA, But Its Political Clout Persists


After the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and here in El Paso, Texas, there is a renewed push for gun control legislation. Opponents of the National Rifle Association want to take advantage of this moment now when the gun rights group is weakened by infighting. NPR's Tim Mak has more on the NRA's influence at a moment of internal turmoil.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The pair of shootings is spurring calls from Democrats in Congress to act on federal background check legislation, even calling for the Senate to return from its summer recess. The idea has some bipartisan appeal. Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said on CBS that he's ready to return to Washington, D.C., immediately.


TIM SCOTT: Happily come back to Washington to have a conversation about gun violence.


SCOTT: And I hope we do it in a very thorough way. I'd do it - I'd leave tonight. I'll go tomorrow.

MAK: But one lawmaker who opposed this was Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican who was a key architect of bipartisan gun control legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. His bill would expand the number of cases where those who are seeking to buy firearms would have to have background checks, but it failed in a 2013 Senate vote after the NRA opposed it. Toomey told reporters that he's worried it will happen again.


PAT TOOMEY: If we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort.

MAK: The National Rifle Association said on Monday that it wants to focus on the root causes of gun violence. The gun rights group also said it wanted to pursue, quote, "real solutions to protect us all from people who commit these horrific acts." One of the biggest obstacles to new gun control legislation is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who decides what gets a vote on the Senate floor. He's been a longtime backer of the NRA. Here he is way back in 2007 at the group's annual convention.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Grassroots groups like the NRA are fundamental to protecting our constitutional liberties.

MAK: Mirroring the NRA's statements, McConnell said this week merely that he wanted to find potential solutions without naming any. But the NRA's sway in the nation's capital may be waning.

ROB PINCUS: They've lost some of their ability to respond because they are distracted, and they are losing funding, and they are losing support. And whatever statements they make are also losing efficacy because of the damage that's been done to their reputation.

MAK: That's Rob Pincus, a leader for Save the Second, a pro-gun rights group but one that wants reforms for accountability inside the NRA. He notes that the group has been weakened by infighting and allegations of financial misconduct in the highest echelons of the group's leadership. Chris Cox, who was the organization's top lobbyist, resigned and three board members stepped down last week after complaining they couldn't get information about the group's financial status. The chaos inside the NRA is an opportunity for its opponents.

JOHN FEINBLATT: The NRA is completely dysfunctional right now.

MAK: John Feinblatt is the president for the gun control group Everytown For Gun Safety.

FEINBLATT: It's like looking at a five-alarm fire, but the amazing thing is they lit the match. And the question, really, is, can the NRA get its house in order to be a player in 2020?

MAK: In one of the surprises of the 2018 midterms, gun control advocates like Everytown For Gun Safety outspent gun rights advocates like the NRA. On Monday morning, President Trump tweeted his support for expanded background checks in line with what Senator Toomey has been advocating. But in televised remarks, the president made no mention of these measures.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.

MAK: It's a sign that despite the NRA's internal struggles, the gun rights community still holds serious influence with the president. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.